Grazia Book Club: Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons In Chemistry

Lessons In Chemistry is really a lesson in life, love and female empowerment

Grazia Book Club

by Maria Lally |

‘Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.’

Set in 1960s America, this book tells the tale of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant scientist whose career is stalled by daring to be a woman in a male dominated industry, by sexism, and by society’s view of where a ‘mother’s place’ is. One who ends up working in a job that underpays and is below her intellectual potential because it fits around her family’s needs. Sound familiar? That’s because this is also a tale as painfully relevant today as it was sixty years ago.

But this being Elizabeth Zott, things don’t work out quite how everybody hoped they would. The smart and beautiful scientist finds herself as the reluctant star of ‘Supper at Six’, a cookery TV show that her male producers hope will inspire the housewives watching from home to become the ‘loving mothers, and hot wives’ that ‘all men want to come home to’.

Zott, who by now lives with her daughter Mad and their whip smart dog, Six-Thirty, has other ideas though and combines her love of chemistry and cooking to challenge the norms of the day.

‘I set it when I did, both to remind me that progress has been made (although not nearly enough), but also because that’s when my mom was a housewife,’ Bonnie tells Grazia. ‘As a young child at that time I didn’t fully understand the limits she lived under. I set the book in the early sixties, in part to salute to those so-called “average housewives” who were anything but, but also to show those women set a course for the rest of us—they raised a generation of feminists.’

At one point in the book, Elizabeth is saved by a sharpened, number-2 pencil, something she continues to wear throughout the book like armour. ‘It’s both a weapon and a symbol of her ability to define her own future,’ explains Bonnis. ‘Elizabeth suffers in this book, and it is this suffering she must find a path through, in order to live her own life.’

And the reason it was a pencil? ‘They always come with erasers,’ says Bonnie, ‘and it is the eraser that’s the key to her power. While one can’t completely erase the hurt that’s come before – a faint outline always remains – one can write a new outcome. Life is full of mistakes and hurt and Elizabeth acknowledges that. But as a scientist, she knows the secret of moving forward is to get back up; to use the eraser not as a way to forget but as a form of defiance. When she says, “Let’s get started,” at the beginning of every show, that’s her sending a message to the women across the TV waves. Don’t let what’s happened in the past steal who you are. Your future starts here.’

It’s a unique, witty, and beautifully written debut about grief, motherhood, sexism and, ultimately, staying true to yourself.

Grazia’s Book Club Gives Its Verdict

‘A concept as unconventional as Zott herself, each page is bursting with wit, optimism and female empowerment. The book has been snapped up by Apple TV and I can see it adapting perfectly onto screen. I’m already eager to see the costumes, the casting and the set design.’ Aisha

‘This charming novel is set in an era when women had their domestic lives carved out for them, and men had the final say. Elizabeth Zott, a very bright chemist, is having none of it and rails against the norms of the day. The author is a competent and natural storyteller, with an incredibly inventive mind.’ Emily

‘I've not enjoyed a book so much in ages: it's witty, sharp and full of life, with the very best canine character. An interesting insight into how far women have come, and how much is still left to do.’ Kate

Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is out now

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